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Was MCNBC Columnist, Jeannette Walls, a Victim of Domestic Abuse as a Child?

Sierra is a lover of books and movies who likes to provide thought-provoking analysis about the way our stories speak to our everyday lives.

Jeannette Walls, author of "The Glass Castle"

Jeannette Walls, author of "The Glass Castle"

How Do You Define Abuse?

Was Jeanette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, abused? In the 2005 memoir, her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s crippling optimism are a constant source of hardship on the Walls family.

The parents raise their children on the principle that they should take care of themselves. Though the children learn some lessons from their experience, they also suffer neglect to the point of serious injury, and risk of death. One quote from the Walls cites from her mother sums up the situation perfectly. “Mom fell through a rotted step and went tumbling down the hillside. 'My husband doesn’t beat me,' she’d say, when anyone stared at [her bruises]. ‘He just won’t fix the stairs.’”

The parents may never physically abuse their children, but when the end results of chronic neglect are the same as that of abuse, can the two really be distinguished from one another?

When doctors ask the three year old why she was cooking by herself, she doesn't understand why. It was normal for the children to fend for themselves.

When doctors ask the three year old why she was cooking by herself, she doesn't understand why. It was normal for the children to fend for themselves.

Free Range Children

The tale of Walls’s childhood begins with a story in which, at three years old, she’s cooking hot dogs while her mother paints. Walls ends up hospitalized with burns. The hospital is described as a luxurious place where everyone is quiet and everything is clean; a sharp contrast to the rough-and-tumble lifestyle her family lives.

Always on the run from something, or in debt to someone, her shiftless father tells his family that the FBI or the mob is after them, as they hop from one dusty, western desert town to another.

Wall's mother is the epitome of toxic positivity; ignoring her husband's grief and her children's struggles.

Wall's mother is the epitome of toxic positivity; ignoring her husband's grief and her children's struggles.

Toxic Positivity

Her mother turns a blind eye to their impoverished and often dangerous circumstances; framing their experiences as adventures, opportunities, and learning experiences.

Things like toothpaste and seatbelts are for sissies, and freedom is always made a priority over stability. When it comes to medicine, doctors aren’t to be trusted. Even on the day that Walls is recklessly whisked out of the hospital, her little brother is suffering from a bleeding head wound, wrapped in dirty bandages.

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Perpetuating The Cycle of Abuse

Throughout the course of the book, things go from bad to worse. The family ends up back in the father’s hometown; a damp, depressing, coal mining town called Welch. There, the children are abused by their relatives and bullied by their peers.

The family endures the elements in a rotting shack with faulty wiring, and no plumbing. They stagnate in their situation, until the children are old enough to gather what little money they have, and pick up and leave of their own accord.

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Walls' father loves his kids, but sadly, his addiction is stronger.

Walls' father loves his kids, but sadly, his addiction is stronger.

Losing a Child Pushes Him Over The Edge

The father is an intelligent, ex-Air Force man with a mind for design, and a love of independence. He also has an addiction to alcohol, and a history of tragic episodes in his life. His own parents are alcoholics.

The story hints at the possibility of sexual abuse in his childhood. He also suffers the loss of a child; a story which Jeannette Walls’s mother relates to her with chilling detachment:

He was the one who found her body in the crib, and Mom couldn’t believe how much it shook him up. “When he found her, he stood there like he was in shock or something, cradling her stiff little body in his arms, and then he screamed like a wounded animal,” she told us. “I never heard such a horrible sound.” Mom said Dad was never the same after Mary Charlene died. He started having dark moods, staying out late and coming home drunk, and losing jobs.

— Excerpt from The Glass Castle

Losing his infant daughter devastated Walls' father, and drove him to succumb to his addictions

Losing his infant daughter devastated Walls' father, and drove him to succumb to his addictions

Castles in the Air

There are a lot of episodes in which he expresses affection for his kids, and shows a genuine interest in their well-being. He tells them colorful stories from his Air Force days, fills their heads with dreams of a grand glass castle he’ll build for them when they strike it rich, and tries to teach them to hunt their demons back when they’re scared.

Sadly, his own demons always seem to catch up with him in the form of drunken rages, job losses, and vicious fights with the mother.

Walls' mother clings to her toxic relationship because of her Catholic faith.

Walls' mother clings to her toxic relationship because of her Catholic faith.

Taking Self-Care to Extremes

The mother suffers her own mental health issues. Aside from being absorbed in her fantasy of becoming a famous artist, she’s also subject to drastic changes in mood.

At her best, she’s blindly optimistic; often seeing the good in the situation at hand, and minimizing or completely ignoring the bad. At her worst, she’s crying and screaming over her unfulfilled dreams, or putting her self-esteem and comfort ahead of the basic human needs of her own family.

Though she considers her marriage to have been a mistake, she refuses to leave her husband, citing her Catholic faith. Throughout the book she justifies her bad decisions by likening them to her husband’s addictions, and insisting that she should be forgiven too.

Today, mental health advocates raise awareness for invisible forms of trauma that don't always leave physical scars.

Today, mental health advocates raise awareness for invisible forms of trauma that don't always leave physical scars.

More Than a Beating

Though The Glass Castle never mentions an instance of the parents hitting the children, it’s a prime example of how abusive relationships are more than simply one person striking another. We see psychological abuse, child endangerment, domestic violence between mother and father, and a constant theme of neglect.

The children suffer mental and bodily harm, on several occasions, due to the negligence of their parents. There isn’t any one thing that goes wrong. There are a number of things that pile up because, like the rotting stairs of their shack, nobody fixes them before someone ends up getting hurt.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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